Altruism in animals: Why do animals sometimes adopt other species’ unrelated orphans?

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Cat adopts baby ducklings. Credit: Real Wild
Cat adopts baby ducklings. Credit: Real Wild

Animals don’t have reason or moral accountability but there is abundant evidence that mammals and birds have feelings. And feelings often follow their own rules. A cat may adopt a duckling, under the right circumstances or a lioness may adopt an oryx.

So what would cause animals to put territorial or predatory instincts aside?

[Evolutionary anthropologist Isabelle Catherine] Winder and [anatomist Vivien] Shaw suggest several factors, including

  • Domestic animals, fed and protected by humans, are free to indulge mothering or protective instincts. They may not even take note of differences between species.
  • Among wild animals, the urge to nurture may overcome other urges…
  • In large herds, adoption of an orphan may give young females practice with nurturing. It’s relevant, perhaps, that the young are usually only with an adoptive parent for one season anyway.

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If we don’t feel a need to affirm kin selection theory or selfish gene theory, maybe we don’t need an explanation — “evolutionary” or otherwise — for animals adopting unrelated animals. Animals think with their feelings, which do not always follow the theory. If whatever they are doing doesn’t kill them or their kind, that’s enough.

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Related article:  Some birds are quite smart but do they really ‘think like humans’?
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